Writing in 1976 about the bicentennial, novelist John Gardner* challenges the 20th century angst “that the American Dream is dead” (p. 96):
The American Dream, it seems to me, is not even slightly ill. It’s escaped, soared away into the sky like an eagle, so not even a great puffy Bicentennial can squash it. The American Dream’s become a worldwide dream, which makes me so happy and flushed with partly chauvinistic pride (it was our idea) that I sneak down into my basement and wave my flag….
That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)
Gardner continues, addressing “majority rule” as “right even when it’s wrong (as often happens),”
because it encourages free men to struggle as adversaries, using established legal means, to keep government working at the business of justice for all.
The theory was and is that is the majority causes too much pain to the minority, the minority will scream (with the help of the free press and the right of assembly) until the majority is badgered or shamed into changing its mind….
It’s true that the system pretty frequently doesn’t work. For decades, pollsters tell us, the American people favored gun control by three to one—law-enforcement officials have favored it by as much as nine to one—but powerful lobbies and cowardly politicians have easily thwarted the people’s will. (p. 97)
About three decades later, I joined the majority of voters in the U.S., electing the first bi-racial (often called simply African American) president in the country’s history. At the time, however, I voted for Barack Obama primarily because I believed his election was an important symbolic moment for the U.S.; I did not buy his message of hope and change (although I was hopeful), and I was skeptical that the Democratic establishment would allow a true champion of liberal and progressive ideas assume the mantle of U.S. President.
As public educators, academics, and scholars have discovered, Obama is no progressive—much less the socialist that libertarians and Tea Party advocates claim. In fact, Obama’s education policy is yet more doubling down on the No Child Left Behind accountability agenda begun under George W. Bush. The Obama education agenda is committed to neoliberalism, not democracy, not justice for all, not protecting human rights:
Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel 1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education. (Thomas, 2011)
And despite Gardner’s soaring optimism, the media is culpable in this failure to commit to hope and change by Obama and his administration.
A powerful and disturbing example of how the Obama administration through the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan masks a neoliberal agenda (see Hursh, 2011, and Carr & Porfilio, 2011) behind civil rights rhetoric and crisis discourse is the exchange between civil rights leaders calling for the removal of Duncan and Obama’s reply. Civil rights leaders include in their call the following:
National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:
- Moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansions.
- It’s proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace failed, market-driven interventions as support for struggling schools.
- Resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
With Obama’s signature prominent at the end of his letter to Ed Johnson, the President replied, his language no longer masking his agenda. Obama is resolute in his commitment to “provid[ing] our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy.”
Not once in this two-page response does Obama mention democracy, or any of the ideals embraced by Gardner above. Obama, instead, offers “cheap streamers in the rain”:
Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy….
In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own….
The message is clear that education is a mechanism for building a competitive workforce; nothing else seems to matter. Obama’s focus on education as training for workers is disturbing, but his relentless commitment to competition and punitive accountability policies in education is inexcusable against democratic goals and the pursuit of equity.
Throughout the response, Obama mentions Race to the Top twice, invokes “competition” three times, and endorses twice “reward” structures for raising teacher and school quality. But let’s not forget the crisis: “America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer.” Even this crisis is driven by economic diction, “afford.”
More than 30 years ago, Gardner argues:
The lie on the American left is this: that the American theory promised such-and-such and has sometimes not delivered, whereas We Deliver. The truth—a metaphysical truth, in fact—is that nobody delivers. (p. 99)
With Obama’s failed education agenda before us as part of three decades of failed accountability policies, Gardner seems prophetic.
And despite Gardner’s rejecting cynicism (“But the myth of the mindless patriot is not worse than the myth of the cynic who speaks of America with an automatic sneer” [p. 98]), I must side with George Carlin:
But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed.
It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.
Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the big owners! The Wealthy… the real owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.
Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have owners! They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear….
They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:
They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests.
I fear this isn’t simply biting social satire. I fear that this isn’t easily discounted as cynicism. I fear that Obama’s education policies and his neoliberal agenda are solid proof that Carlin, not Gardner, is right: “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
* “Amber (Get) Waves (Your) of (Plastic) Grain (Uncle Same)” in On Writers and Writing, John Gardner (1994)